Montague Burton, a “model” immigrant

When I was writing my master’s thesis at Oxford, I explored the history of the discipline of International Relations. I was particularly interested in the career of Alfred E. Zimmern, who held in 1919 the first chair in IR in the world, as Wilson Professor of International Politics in Wales. A key moment in the history of the discipline has been the foundation of the Chair of International Relations at the University of Oxford (1930), named after its donor, Montague Burton. The Montague Burton professorship (held today by Andrew Hurrell) became a keystone in the study of International Relations in Britain, and in the wider world. Yet who was Montague Burton?

Burton came back to my mind recently, after reading about the plea of unaccompanied Syrian child refugees to settle in Britain. When Burton, then Meshe David Osinsky, arrived in London, he was just 15 years old. He was all alone in the world, after leaving his native Lithuania in search for a better life in the New World. From Britain he planned to board a steamer to America, but he discovered a dislike for sailing and decided to remain in London. An unskilled, uneducated Jewish young man, a child really, he settled in Manchester and found work in the tailoring industry (not as a tailor, but as a simple worker). After he married Sophie Marks, and had four children, he changed his name to endow his new life with more distinguished, British flair.

montague burton
Sir Montague Burton (1885-1952)

Burton made his fortune from ready-made men’s suits. The Great War marked the beginning of an era of social change in Britain, as surely those who followed Downton Abbey would know. More men needed elegant yet simple suits, and could not afford to use the services of expert tailors. Burton opened a chain of ready-made men’s tailor shops, and eventually also started manufacturing the suits in his own factories. With over 30,000 workers, he was the biggest employer in Leeds. It was an empire of low to middle class fashion, and it made Burton rich and respectable. Later, in the Second World War, he became one of the biggest manufacturers of military uniform for the British Army.

The disciplinary history of IR reveals not only the intellectual discussions of Oxford dons, but also the rise of the penniless, unskilled Jewish child immigrant (not even officially a refugee) to a fashion mogul and a generous benefactor. The story of Burton tells us about the changing nature of international relations as much as any of Alfred Zimmern’s books. In a sense, it is a story about a world of relatively open borders, free trade and capitalistic entrepreneurship. But it is also a world of second chances, of opportunities detached from the historical accident of citizenship. The current debate about the need to accommodate in Britain Syrian child refugees (or to keep the British doors open to European immigrants) should be read also in light of stories like Meshe David Osinsky’s, AKA Sir Montague Burton.


Sabbioneta, an Italian utopia

Few places are as daunted by their past as Sabbioneta, the ideal city envisaged by Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna in the 16th century. The Duke Vespasiano was a minor member of the famous clan of the Gonzaga, who ruled the near-by city-state of Mantova. Between 1554 and his death in 1591, he dedicated his energies to transforming his little duchy, the forgotten and insignificant village of Sabbinetta, into a humanist’s utopia.


Sabbionetta was supposed to host all the institutions and buildings that a secular cultured humanist could want and need: a frescoed palace with a public art gallery, a large library for scholars to browse his book collection, a municipal palace of government, a theater, a large piazza for public rallies, a church (to satisfy the local clergy) and a synagogue (to attract wealthy Jewish financiers), beautiful parks dedicated to leisurely activities, all surrounded by fortified defensive walls. Inspired by renaissance utopias, Vespasiano built an ideal city to match his political and moral vision as a scholar and art-loving enlightened ruler.


Last winter I visited the city, located less than an hour from Mantova, and found a material example for the power of utopian projects and their inherent limitations. I arrived in Sabbioneta on a cold, rainy, winter day. The bus dropped me off at the gate of the walled city, now surrounded by green fields. I walked into the majestic city square, turned right and entered Vespasiano’s palace. The red-brick monumental building was cold and empty. The humanist duke, an ardent art collector, constructed his palace as a consequence of frescoed rooms that led to the ‘gallery of the antiques’, a large windowed corridor meant to host artefacts from the duke’s collection. Today, the rundown palace hosts temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit, an exhibition of photography by Andy Warhol enhanced the surreal atmosphere at the empty palace, an ironic suggestion that Vespasiano’s 15 minutes of glory had long passed.


After a stroll in the abandoned synagogue (the Jewish community has long left for Mantova or Milan) and a visit in the local church that hosts Vespasiano’s mausoleum, I sought refuge from the chill of this ghost city in a local café. Between the renaissance monuments, the locals have constructed the necessary spaces for the survival of a small, unassuming Italian village: a couple of cafés and restaurants, a newspaper stand, a post-office and a hardware shop. At the café, the barista told me that even in summer, Sabbioneta lives only through the dreams of its founder. Very few people inhabit the old city, because its fame has raised the rents beyond the locals’ budget, while lack of commercial or industrial initiatives had increased employment.

The insistence on preserving the utopian vision of Vespasiano untouched and unspoilt has alienated many of the young local entrepreneurs. Without an active citizenry, Sabbioneta cannot rise above its mundane existence as a provincial village trapped in an ossified museum city. It lives in the eternal shade of the dead architectural realisation of one man’s political and cultural vision. Vespasiano may have been the perfect ruler, a philosopher-king who envisaged a perfect public life for his subjects. But his vision lived and died with him. He was unable to rally the support of the local population to ensure the continuity of his civil utopia. Without a demos, Sabbioneta has no life. Today, all that is left an empty buildings and a utopian dream, whose ambitious scale any local attempt to revive the city.


Waiting for the bus back to Mantova, I thought that the etymology of Utopia, a non-place, suggested that the realisation of the ‘ideal city’ was a doomed project. Maybe the failure of Sabbioneta provides an opportunity for inward inspection, a soul-searching exercise for planners of contemporary utopias. 500 years after the publication of Thomas More’s celebrated book, a visit to Sabbioneta is a melancholic reminder of the difficulty of constructing a real place according to ideal plans.


Review of A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci


The final version of this review will be published in Political Studies Review, Volume 14 of the Journal, Issue 4, November 2016.

A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci (ed. and trans. by Derek Boothman). London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 2014.

This volume is a collection of the early letters of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Marxist political thinker and leader of the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci’s prison diaries, written during his long incarceration under the Fascist regime in Italy, appeared in English translation in 1994 and have since then become a reference point for theorists and historians alike. However, his earlier correspondence, dating from 1908-1926, have not yet been translated. The new collection offers therefore a much-needed addition to the English bookshelf of Gramsci’s works. During the two decades covered in this volume, Gramsci left his native rural Sardinia, discovered Marxism as a student at the University of Turin, and emerged on the national and international political scene as one of the key political leaders in Italy. As this volume reminds us, it is not sufficient to read the prison diaries to understand Gramsci’s thought. His social and political ideas were shaped while engaging actively in politics in Sardinia, as a student in Turin, as a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and its representative in Moscow, and finally in Rome. The collection includes two thirds of the known correspondence of Antonio Gramsci from his high school days up to his arrest, revealing his complex relations with his family, with his wife Julija Schucht, with other revolutionary activists like Palmiro Togliatti, Amedeo Bordiga, and with members of the Comintern in Moscow including Leon Trotsky.

As the editor and translator Derek Boothman suggests in his insightful introduction, the selection of letters sheds light on the evolution and continuities in Gramsci’s thought, tracing the early emergence through dialogue of key Gramscian themes like the nature of the superstructures of society, centralism and party politics, popular culture, passive revolution, hegemony and social alliances (49-50). Boothman’s introduction helps situate the letters in historical context, provides biographical details about Gramsci and his main interlocutors, and explains the conceptual meaning of the letters in the wider framework of his thought. The wide-ranging thematic scope of the letters – personal meditations, political commentary, policy plans for the Communist Party and theoretical reflections – offers a wealth of insights for scholars acquainted with Gramsci’s later writings as well as for first time readers of his work. The English translation from the original Italian is accurately and meticulously executed, paying attention to the different linguistic registers deployed by Gramsci in different periods in his life. Thus, this selection of letters represents a welcome addition to the English language sources by Gramsci and about his work.





Review of The Companion to Raymond Aron

Raymond Aron, 1966
Raymond Aron, 1966



Forthcoming in Political Studies Review, Volume 15 of the Journal, Issue 1, February 2017.

The Companion to Raymond Aron by  Jose Colen and Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut (eds). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

The Companion to Raymond Aron seeks to provide an overview of the works and ideas of the French sociologist, political thinker and commentator Raymond Aron (1905-1983). The main aim of the book is to ‘aid in the study of Aron’s political, sociological and philosophical thought and writings’ (1). It is especially directed at the English-reading audience, where Aron’s ideas remain less known and studied, often due to lack of good English translations of his works. The volume is divided into three parts, representing the main themes of Aron’s work: international relations, philosophy, and the history of ideas. The long list of contributors include French and international scholars of Aron’s thought, such as Serge Audier, Pierre Hessner, Perrine Simon-Nahum, Joel Mouric, Iain Stewart, Daniel J. Mahoney and Giulio de Ligio. The essays seek to shed light on Aron’s versatile and diverse intellectual production, ranging from historical analysis, political commentary and philosophical studies. Each part includes numerous essays on various aspects of Aron’s thought, from totalitarianism to the Cold War, from the philosophy of history to theory of democracy, from Machiavelli to Marx. Furthermore, the volume includes an essay by Aron’s biographer, Nicolas Baverez, and a detailed bibliography of his works by Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut.

The volume provides valuable studies of Aron’s thought. The essays succeed in contextualising Aron in the intellectual horizon of the twentieth century and in shedding light on the nuances of his thought. The essays share a commitment to depicting Aron as an original liberal thinker who made a lasting, if sometimes under-appreciated, contribution to western liberal thought. Thus, the volume presents a complex, intriguing portrait of an important liberal thinker that goes beyond his stereotypical reputation as a ‘cold warrior’ and anti-communist. One of the underlying aims of many of the essays is to emphasise Aron’s relevance to contemporary thought, and to highlight his importance as ‘the greatest figure in French liberalism of the twentieth century’(3). It is doubtlessly true that, as the contributors to this volume ceaselessly argue, Aron’s impressive and original political analysis deserves a greater attention than it had so far received. Yet sometimes the reader is left with a feeling that a more critical rather than celebratory attitude would have helped some of the essays to do his work justice. Nonetheless, the volume makes an important and welcome contribution to the English-language literature on Raymond Aron.

Political realism and history

Last month I participated in an Italian conference on political realism. A group of fifty-strong Italian academics and researchers, we spent three days, 8 hours per day, in a beautiful monastery in Perugia debating the meaning of political realism. The line-up was ambitious: we were each given 15 minutes to make our original and insightful contribution to thinking about political realism. Topics ranged from Thucydides to Strauss, from Mosca to Machiavelli, from Hobbes to Aron, via many other thinkers who contributed more or less to shaping the idea of ‘political realism’.

My talk focused on political realism and geopolitics. When my turn to speak arrived, at the end of the first day, the audience seemed a bit fatigued by the day’s intense intellectual labours. To brighten up the discussion, I argued that we, as historians of political thought, should reconsider the usefulness of ‘political realism’ as a category of political analysis. Possibly, ‘political realism’ is too vague and general a category to provide any insightful, instructive and innovative historical and conceptual knowledge. Many past thinkers embellished their arguments with the title of ‘political realism’. But among this diversified group of realist thinkers – even the ones we’ve discussed at the conference – there was a plurality of incompatible arguments and conclusions.

For example, in mid-century American geopolitics, many claimed to speak for ‘political realism’ in their geopolitical writings. Both Owen Lattimore and Nicholas Spykman argued that they were realists because they based their political proposals on empirical observations of the geopolitical world and power relations within it. However, Spykman thought a realist political theory should recognize the real power relations in the world: American political global supremacy. Lattimore similarly thought political realism should be based on reality, which for him meant a plurality of communities, societies and states. Spykman’s world order aimed at accommodating the new American world power, while Lattimore’s aimed at safeguarding the world’s diversity and pluralism. It is easy to judge – anachronistically – whose ideas were more realistic, in sense of political realization and practicality. But this is beside my point. I was interested in showing how ‘political realism’ could mean anything and nothing, even for people who write at the same time and place in similar academic environment. Thus, perhaps we should be wary of using the term too generally, without grounding it in historicised definitions and intellectual context.

Despite the late hour, my intervention ignited a long debate. Some were concerned with giving up on ‘political realism’ – it seemed like a basic concept in politics which should not be abandoned so easily (not to mention the possible implications for the whole conference, whose topic and title were now at risk). Others were relieved to find that many shared their doubts about the viability of ‘political realism’ as an eternal, cross-cultural and cross-temporal category. Perhaps instead of one ‘political realism’ there should be many diverse realisms, not necessarily compatible with each other.

Yet not everyone was keen to give up, and some started to look for a mega-definition of political realism. One proposal went along the lines of ‘political theory based on observation of reality’, which, in its turn, seemed to some too vague as to include almost any attempt at thinking about politics, including Thomas More’s Utopia and Kant’s Perpetual Peace which emerged as a critique on reality of their times. If it wasn’t for dinner, we would have gone on and on forever.

At the end of the day, it was a stimulating and diversified conference exploring ideas from different places, times and contexts. Intentionally or not, the uncovering of the thousand aspects of ‘political realism’ showed that it could never be assigned one clear meaning.